At Bodega Salvat in the Sants neighborhood, large wooden wine barrels perched on high shelves almost touch the ceiling, looking down on those drinking below with more than 100 years of local history. For several generations of Sants residents, this old bodega, opened in 1880 by the Salvat Vidal family as a bulk wine store, is a fixture of daily life. Now, after a few decades of being run by others, Bodega Salvat’s original owners have returned to bring a new shine to their family gem.
The Salvat Vidals, who still own the building housing the more-than-100-year-old watering hole, now protected by the Barcelona City Council as an “iconic bodega,” have passed the business on to various owners over the years. But when the past year’s Covid-19 related lockdowns hit Barcelona hard, the latest of the bodega’s operators made the decision to return the bar license and business to the family. Understanding how difficult it would be to have someone else take over the license at such a volatile time, the Salvat Vidals decided to get back behind the bar. “We already knew the job,” says owner David Vidal, whose father, Alberto Vidal (now 84), was the cousin of the first owner, Manuel Salvat Vidal. “My father worked here from the age of 15 to 30. After that, he opened his own bodega nearby, though the building has now been demolished. Now his children are continuing the job here!”
The first few months of 2020, with their continually changing lockdown regulations, were the most difficult. But the family took that as a sign that it was time to get back to their roots and put the “Salvat” back in Bodega Salvat. They’ve made some changes, however, including upgrading their culinary offerings and turning an old storeroom next door into an additional space. During working hours, David raises up the former storeroom’s garage door, allowing the bodega to burst forth onto the sidewalk.
One of the joys of Barcelona’s old-school neighborhood bars and bodegas is talking with their regulars, and during an early and quieter time of day, we casually chat with Juan Esteban, a living history book of Bodega Salvat and the surrounding neighborhood. His first job as a kid was at Bodega Salvat, and he had retired some years ago. Another customer nearby jokes: “Juan is always around. The only difference is that now he has to pay for the wine!” Indeed, Juan had shown up that day with a 5-liter used plastic water jug to fill up from one of the bulk wine barrels. Together, he and David gave us the story of the bodega’s evolution over the last 100-plus years.
Originally, the repurposed storeroom was an open patio and vegetable garden, with a well in the center that was used to keep cool bottles of water, beer and soda, as well as porrones (traditional glass vessels) of wine. At a certain point, the patio became a storeroom, where huge tanks of concrete and brick for wine were built inside the wall and into the floor – this was on top of the big wooden barrels stored in what is now a garage and back-office. The big wood casks are gone and those built-in tanks no longer in use, but David showed them to us, hidden witnesses of the bodega’s past, now sealed with heavy iron covers.
Bodega Salvat still maintains its old business of selling wine in bulk out of the few casks remaining in the main room. But these days it also serves as a vermuteria, with a great house vermouth, sold in bulk or served in the small and iconic oliveta glass – with one olive pierced by a toothpick. For beer lovers, Bodega Salvat offers five brews on tap, including its famous black beer, chilled in a steel keg that’s kept cold inside an old fridge from 1929. (Also from 1929 are the iconic hand-painted tiles of the bodega’s main room. They were bought that year at the Universal Exhibition of Barcelona).
Traditionally, bodegas don’t have a full kitchen, serving instead a range of cured and preserved tapas and pinchos, like sausages, ham, cheese, salted cod, canned shellfish or the most iconic of all – anchovies (they are currently serving an exquisite variety made from fish caught only in April, when they are less fatty and have a cleaner flavor). Since the return of the Salvat Vidal family, the menu of tapas and pinchos at the bodega has been expanded considerably, with cooked offerings like xistorra (small chorizos), croquets, Spanish omlette and cod fritters.
Before we leave, Juan gives us a final nugget about Bodega Salvat, sharing something that even David didn’t know. In the wall behind the bar, between some old bottles on the shelves, is a hidden treasure: a bottle of wine with a commemorative label for the Sant Andreu Futbol Club, a small but old football team from the Sant Andreu district of Barcelona, gifted “with affection to Bodega Salvat” by the club’s president.
The labels are printed with a special sketch by Catalonia’s very-own Salvador Dalí, who donated the piece to the football club’s 1977 fundraiser. The original piece has disappeared, some say it was stolen, but it lives on atop these collector’s bottles, printed to celebrate the club’s 1989-1990 victory in the Third Division Championship. The label reads: “Specially for the U.E. S.Andreu. With good wine and loyalty, friendship is preserved.”
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